Ask anyone who has been involved with Comicpalooza to describe the experience in just a few words and those words will undoubtedly be “controlled chaos”. There’s just some combination of massive scale and DIY ethic that makes everything run choppy, but with determination. Nothing has ever summed that sentiment up better than standing in line to receive my press badge and watching a man in a steampunk costume accidentally crash his mobility travel scooter into a Will Call booth, caving in the front and nearly toppling it onto the startled woman manning it.
It’s the sort of thing that should cause a ruckus and a delay, but for the first time the convention feels truly prepared for the tens of thousands that will make their way into the George R. Brown Convention Center this weekend. A volunteer told me that they had hired nearly three times as many people to control the mobs. Last year lines for registration and pick-up on Saturday were as long as a four-hour wait. Now, the patrons were getting checked in at a more rapid click than press and vendors, to the chagrin of the artists holding heavy satchels next to me in line.
While there, local magician and steampunk fan Drew Heyen stopped by to say hello. He told me that he’d been employed as line entertainment in addition to his scheduled performances later in the evening involving traditional parlor magic and something he called static illusions. The problem, if you want to call it that, was that there were no lines to entertain. Comicpalooza has its act together, at least on the relatively sedate first day.
I always like to sneak onto the floor before the crowds when all the vendors and artists are setting up. Part of it is a chance to catch up with old friends and contacts before they have to deal with the public, but it’s also a really good chance to see how things are starting off. You get a feel for the soul of convention when it’s still garish and mostly empty.
As I wandered among the booths talking to people there was one story that seemed to be told more and more. So many people, especially our local emerging writers and artists, are choosing this year to take the plunge and leave behind their day jobs.
The first person to mention it to me was Jessi Jordan. I mostly know Jordan from one of the best local short works I’ve ever seen, Psycho Ex-Girlfriend, that she did with Meredith Nudo. It’s not the easiest thing to find a copy of, but if you ever happen to run across one at Zine Fest then don’t miss the chance to grab it. It’s the story of a man who pathologically misinterprets every comment his girlfriend makes, up to and including “God, you’re sexy”, as a passive aggressive insult.
“It’s always funny when gaslighting dudebros pick it up,” says Jordan. “They think it’s going to be something else. I just smile and as they walk away say, “got you.’”
Jordan told me she was putting in her two-week notice at her day job to pursue freelance art as a living. In addition to the art she hawks at the conventions she’s got several comics in the works. One I’m looking forward to is the story of a girl and her best friend, a yeti. That’s been on hold as she’s dealt with flying back and forth across the country due to the sudden death of her grandmother.
I did take the opportunity to pick up a couple of issues of her current ongoing book, Musings, done with Matt Gordon. It’s an easy read, and Jordan’s art reminds me a lot of what Erica Henderson is doing with Squirrel Girl these days. Mostly it follows the adventures of a young girl just out of a relationship who starts falling into the worlds in books. It opens with a Twilight parody because of course it does, and we get another great line in “Kill them for trouncing on your undead expression of manliness.”
We’re starting to live in a world where people like Jordan are not as removed from the possibility of a living on her art as you might think. I went out of my way to visit Robert Wilson IV while I was down on artist alley. Wilson was invited to do a guest appearance as an artist on Kelly Sue DeConnick’s impossibly good Bitch Planet. It’s the angry feminist book comic fans have been dying to read, and Wilson’s turn on #3 was top notch work.
Over the last several years creator-owned work like Bitch Planet has steadily been empowering more and more comic writers and artists.
“It started with The Walking Dead,” said Wilson. “Before that there just wasn’t any way for an independent artist with a new idea to make a living. You either worked on the hero books or you starved. Now, it’s become something that anyone can do and actually live.”
He’s definitely right. Don’t get me wrong, the superheroes are still big business but even the big shots of that world are doing their best work over at Image where they can tell their own stories. Scott Snyder does wonders for Batman, but he also does The Wake. Matt Fraction made Hawkeye in my opinion the best hero monthly book for more than a year, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the originality of Sex Crimes. Even Brian K. Vaughan, a real heavyweight, is weaving his masterpiece in Saga, not in the juggernaut of geek supremacy that are Marvel and DC now.
Not everyone I talked to was so hopeful, though. Another local artist, Lane Montoya, said that Comicpalooza was to be her last con for the foreseeable future.
“I got an adult job,” she says morosely. “I’m going to be flying all over the country doing stuff in the insurance industry. I’m probably going to have to take most of all this art and just burn it. I always told myself, even when I was a kid, ‘fuck it, I’m going to do art.’ But I’ve come to the point where I need something steady to support me. I don’t know when I’ll get the chance to make something again.”
As we talked she slipped sketches into a protective pages in a very expensive looking folder with loving care. I asked about what she was doing and said it was a comic she’d been working on for a while called Isolation. I flipped through the pages of the comic. Rough and uncolored as it was it was also beautiful. Rich desertscapes and beautiful warrior women wandered across the pages, but there were no words so Isolation was kind of like a Rorschach test for the reader at this stage. It reminded me mostly of the tone of voice I heard when Montoya spoke about having to find a way to live outside of finishing something like her comic.
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Local film bigwig Carlos Tovar echoed her sentiments when I met up with him, though to a lesser degree. It’s been a big year for local film. Sorrow and Conjoined and Tovar’s own Doll Factory are starting to make the rounds. Joe Grisaffi just signed on to direct Kids Vs. Zombies and Hair Metal Shotgun Zombie Massacre is due out in the not too distant future. I’ve probably forgotten something that’s come out, but that’s to be understood because it’s that busy.
Tovar is a Comicpalooza giving panel talks on filmmaking, but also screening a variety of flicks including Doll Factory in late night showings. Despite the boom he mentioned that he is seeking part-time work to make ends meet between film projects. His teenage superhero web series, More Than Human, has been on hiatus production-wise for nearly a year due to an unexpected pregnancy in the cast. He’s moving forward, though, with the support of his soon-to-be wife.
“She’s behind me all the way,” says Tovar. “She knows that this is who I am and what I want to do. It sucks having to get a regular job, but hopefully I won’t have to be an adult for long.”
Most of the big programming for Comicpalooza is in the next couple of days. Fridays are generally a warm up and a chance to meet up with old friends. Controlled chaos, as I said. Walking out to file I listened to a Harley Quinn rant and rave to her friend about how another Harley had glared at her. My phone went off and my friend Allison was texting me to tell me that she’d just seen Gwar trash someone’s booth before walking away. Every year this place gets weirder and weirder. Rassilon bless it because who in their right mind would grow up when you could do this instead?